Scott Miller's Starting 9: Don't Discount Giants in Rugged NL West

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Don't Discount Giants in Rugged NL West
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

1. In with the New

The ball drops, the New Year begins, and you learn stuff.

Stuff like this:

You learn there is a show called Mozart in the Jungle, and that it is good enough to win Best Comedy at the Golden Globes (huh?!).

You learn that the Cincinnati Bengals not only are inelegant but are a colossal disgrace.

And you learn that with spring training just over one month away, no division will be more intriguing than the NL West.

While the Arizona Diamondbacks earned well-deserved praise for shooting for the stars (or, at least, for the top of the division) by scooping up Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller last month, the San Francisco Giants quietly are positioning themselves to continue their wacky even-year success.

No, Denard Span, who signed a three-year, $31 million deal last week, isn't the second coming of Bryce Harper or Mike Trout.

But he fits beautifully into that team and that clubhouse. The thought here is that under baseball operations chief Brian Sabean, who is as good as there is at finding pieces who fit, the Giants have done it again.

Together, Span and the additions of free-agent starters Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija should make the Giants much more interesting and return them to contention.

Granted, Span has much to prove physically. He played in only 61 games last season because of core injuries. He ended the 2014 season with a minor groin pull, or so he thought, but wound up having surgery that December.

Then he pushed himself too hard, injured the other side of his groin and underwent a second surgery last March.

Then he came back too soon from that and ended up having hip surgery Sept. 1. By then, his confidence was at a low ebb, and as the Nationals' season swirled down the drain amid a sea of injuries and infighting, Span clearly was a man in need of a fresh start.

"Span was the biggest loss of all of them for me," one source close to the Nationals told Bleacher Report this winter, recounting the games the team lost from various injuries to Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and others. "He's a true leadoff guy. Legitimate, true leadoff."

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Cueto's stock fell some with Kansas City last summer following his trade from Cincinnati. What the Royals found was that he was so sensitive that they ended up scheduling their World Series rotation to make sure Cueto started at home instead of on the road, where hostile crowds rattled him.

Samardzija, of course, is coming off a disappointing season in which his 4.96 ERA was the third-highest of all American League qualifying starters. Before the July 31 trade deadline, he worked seven or more innings over 10 consecutive starts. But after the Chicago White Sox kept him at the deadline, he went 1-8 with a 9.24 ERA over his next nine starts.

Point is, neither Cueto nor Samardzija is a sure thing, but the talent is there. And San Francisco's Hall of Fame (one day, for sure) manager Bruce Bochy and pitching coach Dave Righetti are perfect for bringing it out.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

And the Giants, who already have a championship pedigree, added some championship-level character as well.

"I'm at the stage of my career [where] I want to do whatever it takes to win a championship," Span told San Francisco reporters, per MLB.com's Chris Haft. "If that means me being in center field, I'll take that with pride and I'll do the best I can. If they need me in left field or they need me to catch for Buster [Posey] for a couple of games, I'll do that as well."

Don't get carried away now, Denard. Giants fans have as much chance of seeing him behind the plate as they do of seeing a Willie Mays comeback (but, oh, don't we wish it could happen?).

But with a (presumably) healthy Span in center field and a couple of rotation upgrades, maybe the Giants won't even need that calendar voodoo they've used so successfully to bounce back in 2016.

 

2. In with the New Too

JIJI PRESS/Getty Images

Pull out your iPhone and ask Siri, "Who's the boss?" and this amusing answer sometimes comes back: "You are. But it gets a little confusing when Bruce Springsteen is around."

Which brings me to St. Louis' Monday signing of right-hander Seung-hwan Oh from South Korea. Yes, the Cardinals added him to boost their already strong bullpen. He compiled a 2.73 ERA with 41 saves and fanned 66 batters in 69.1 innings last season for Japan's Hanshin Tigers.

But the real reason why everyone except the Cardinals' rivals should root for Oh? His nickname: Final Boss.

 

3. He's Not Zack Greinke, But...

Nick Ut/Associated Press

Maybe Kenta Maeda will wind up doing what Greinke couldn't do, and that's help pitch the Los Angeles Dodgers to a World Series. He'll sure be around long enough to have several chances.

Maeda's eight-year contract is the longest the Dodgers have ever awarded a pitcher. The catch: Because of something in his physical examination that made them a bit wary, the Dodgers wanted a longer deal packed with incentives. Maeda is guaranteed a minimum of $25 million, and the deal could be worth more than $100 million. According to the Los Angeles Times, he can earn more than $10 million annually based on games started and innings pitched.

The Dodgers project Maeda in their rotation alongside Clayton Kershaw and, presumably, Brett Anderson and Scott Kazmir. They also have Alex Wood, Hyun-Jin Ryu coming back from shoulder surgery and Brandon McCarthy, who is projected to make a midseason return from Tommy John elbow surgery.

One interesting sidelight from the Maeda signing: Former Dodgers and Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda told Dylan Hernandez of the Times that the biggest challenge for Maeda will be adjusting to the MLB rotation schedule of pitching once every five days. In Japan, pitchers start once per week.

"That was the hardest part for me," Kuroda told Hernandez in a telephone interview conducted in Japanese.

After seven seasons in the majors, Kuroda returned to Japan and pitched with Maeda for the Hiroshima Carp last summer.

"If he can overcome the difficulty of pitching on four days' rest, he'll do well," Kuroda told Hernandez.

 

4. Out with the Old

Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Washington Nationals always were going to shake up their bullpen—good news for Drew Storen, whom the Nats traded to Toronto for center fielder Ben Revere the other day.

The deal gives Storen a badly needed new start after the Nationals jerked him around for the past few seasons. They yanked him out of the closer's role once in favor of Rafael Soriano (how'd that go?), then demoted him to the minors, then reinstalled him as the closer and then yanked him out of that role again last summer in favor of Jonathan Papelbon (forensics experts are still investigating).

Nats GM Mike Rizzo said the other day he expects that Papelbon will be "one of our late-inning relievers." Good luck with that. Some in the industry still expect the Nats to deal Papelbon. We'll see.

As for Storen, he'll slot in somewhere in the late innings in Toronto. Blue Jays rookie Roberto Osuna had a terrific season in 2015 (20 saves, 68 appearances, 0.92 WHIP, 2.58 ERA) and likely will be first man up as Toronto's closer.

 

5. Leave the Non-Griffey Jr. Voters Alone

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

What we should have been talking about all along is Ken Griffey Jr.'s being elected to the Hall of Fame by acclimation, receiving an astounding, record-shattering 99.3 percent of the vote. Tom Seaver's 98.84 had been the highest.

Instead, many folks over the past week embarked on a veritable witch hunt to find the three voters who left Griffey off their ballot entirely. Agreed, a ballot this year without Griffey's name is a ludicrous ballot.

But it's still not nearly as bad as:

• 11 voters leaving Babe Ruth off their ballot in 1936, the Hall's first class.

• 28 voters leaving Joe DiMaggio off their ballots in 1955.

• 20 voters leaving Ted Williams off their ballots in 1966.

Associated Press

• 36 voters leaving Jackie Robinson off their ballots in 1962.

I could go on. Nobody has ever been elected to the Hall of Fame unanimously, and there are countless examples where you have to wonder whether certain voters should have had their heads examined.

But what's worse than a handful of voters somehow deciding "I'm not going to vote for (fill in the blank)" is this: groupthink.

When we reach a point as a society where the tar-and-feather crowd starts scaring everyone into thinking and voting the same, that's when we're really in trouble.

 

6. Free-Agent Rankings

Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Here's my weekly take as agents bluster, suitors cluster and bean counters muster the courage to write those checks as the winter deepens into (gulp) award season…

1. Dexter Fowler: C'mon, if The Martian can win a Golden Globe as a comedy, then it's not that much of a stretch for someone to sign a solid leadoff hitter and defensive center fielder, is it?

2. Yovani Gallardo: Next starting pitcher up, you would think. Unless Wei-Yin Chen goes all Lady Gaga on him and steals the attention.

3. Howie Kendrick: He still feasts on cookies, but his Empire is fading fast.

4. Justin Upton: By now, you'd think someone would have signed poor Justin thinking he could connect them with Kate.

5. Yoenis Cespedes: The Mets are still reeling from the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme. If his offseason were a movie, The Big Short could describe Cespedes' stock shrinking like so many other portfolios.

 

7. Five of 30 with No Hall of Famers

Matt Brown/Getty Images

Griffey Jr.'s election gives the Seattle Mariners their first Hall of Famer. It also leaves just five clubs without their own Hall of Famer, as USA Today pointed out in an entertaining piece.

The five, along with a comment sizing up the situation:

Colorado Rockies: Larry Walker (15.5 percent of the vote this year)? Todd Helton? We know no pitchers stand a chance.

Los Angeles Angels: The quick reaction is that outfielder Vladimir Guerrero comes onto the ballot next year and maybe…except if he is elected, he's probably going in as a Montreal Expo. The Angels easily are the oldest team on this list, having been around since 1961, and currently Mike Trout has the best odds of becoming their first Hall of Famer.

Miami Marlins: Good luck. By the time any young prospects grow into something and begin earning real money (Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera), owner Jeffrey Loria makes sure they're traded. Anybody care to bet on Giancarlo Stanton earning Hall of Fame status as a Marlin?

Tampa Bay Rays: Well, for a time, word was that Wade Boggs had a deal with former Rays owner Vince Naimoli that he would go into Cooperstown as a Ray. The Hall of Fame curators were never going to let that happen.

Washington Nationals: Not counting the Montreal Expos, who have Gary Carter and Andre Dawson.

 

8. Halladay vs. Clemens on Twitter

Competitors will always be competitors. In case you missed this exchange on Twitter last week, here are a couple of fastballs from two who threw among the hardest in recent years (I'm on Team Halladay):

 

9. In the Spirit of the Game

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

In so many walks of life during these tough economic times, people flat-out need help.

Over here in this small corner of the baseball world, the annual "In the Spirit of the Game" gala comes around again this weekend; it's a fabulous baseball event designed to raise money for longtime scouts who are down and out. This year marks the 13th annual event, hosted by the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation and the brainchild of former agent Dennis Gilbert, who now is a special assistant to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

The event has become one of the biggest on the winter baseball calendar and includes a who's who of baseball luminaries and a silent auction that, in the past, has included everything from dresses worn in movies by Marilyn Monroe to guitars signed by the Rolling Stones to autographed memorabilia from such legends as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and more.

Those who will be honored this year include Andre Dawson, Maury Wills, Joe Torre, Terry Collins and Bill White.

If you're in the Los Angeles area and would like to attend, here's the information. If not, be sure to watch highlights on MLB Network later this month.

 

9a. Rock 'n' Roll Lyric of the Week

ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images

I never loved David Bowie. Liked him, didn't love him. That's the way art works; some hits you right between the eyes, some doesn't, and it's OK. But I always recognized the man's genius and place in history. Heroes come from all walks of life. Sleep well, Thin White Duke. We'll miss you.

"I, I will be king

"And you, you will be Queen

"Though nothing, will drive them away

"We can beat them, just for one day

"We can be heroes just for one day

"And you, you can be mean

"And I, I'll drink all the time

"'Cause we're lovers, and that is a fact

"Yes we're lovers, and that is that

"Though nothing, will keep us together

"We could steal time,

"Just for one day

"We can be heroes, forever and ever

"What d'you say?

"I, I wish you could swim

"Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim

"Though nothing,

"Nothing will keep us together

"We can beat them, forever and ever

"Oh we can be heroes,

"Just for one day"

— David Bowie, "Heroes"

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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